"’Diving Duck Blues’" – Part 1 – Thelma’s Daughter

A. R. Taylor is an award-winning playwright, essayist, and writer of fiction. We’re serializing one of Anne’s stories, originally published in the Berkeley Insider, all this week. “‘The Diving Duck Blues'” involves the agony a mother feels at the great distance between herself and her daughter. Knowing full well that she has failed her child, Thelma still tries to understand her world, and to some extent, fit in. Ultimately, she can’t, but she can still love her.

“‘Diving Duck Blues'”

“If the river were whiskey, babe,
and I was a diving duck,
I’d dive on that bottom,
Baby – and I’d never come up.”
Sleepy John Estes

Thelma Ryan looked down at the red and white racing ticket and then tore it up. Outside Rafe and Ginny were talking on the swing. They were happy – they had had two winners and an exacta. Thelma’s luck had been bad lately, probably because the moon was in Scorpio, she thought, as she looked down at the elaborately printed invitation perched next to the African violets over the sink.

“An Evening of Poetic License.” She stared at it, gloomily.
“Come on out here, Thelma,” Rafe yelled, “We’re doing the Pick Six.”

Thelma took a sip from a glass of scotch she had nearby, and sat down at the kitchen table. She held the invitation in her hand, wondering how she could possibly go to this event, not even really sure what the event was. Someone was reading poetry, and her daughter would be there, probably be in charge or something like that. She took another sip of scotch. Thelma and her husband, Frank, had been sipping whiskey for thirty years, maintaining, as it were, a fairly constant level of happiness. How much did her daughter know about her drinking, Thelma wondered.

“Ginny likes Prince Hardcastle in the eighth, Thelma,” Rafe yelled again. Rafe was a handsome black man, about sixty, with very few teeth. Thelma and Ginny met him at Golden Gate Fields when he gave them a seventy-to-one shot that came in. Since they had had no big win in eight months, this made for a serious friendship.

“It’s ‘Slugfest,’ I’m telling you,” she yelled back. “The crap it is,” Ginny yelled again. Ginny was a woman of few words, vivid dress, and intense dreams. Thelma wandered out to the swing and sat next to Rafe, who was completely absorbed in the racing form. It was a cool, sweet smelling day, the kind that made Thelma glad her fifty-two years had been spent in northern California.

“I don’t know what to do,” Thelma muttered. “Who does, Honey?” Ginny laughed.

She handed the thick white note to Ginny, who looked at it suspiciously, turning it around several times. “What the hell is it?”

Thelma suddenly felt too close to the edge of her drinking to explain, but then she focused her eyes on a dirty, almost mashed tennis ball lying in the grass. Joanna played tennis. She had given her daughter her first tennis racket, even though the steady “pock, plop” of the game put Thelma to sleep.

“Somebody’s reading poetry, maybe a poet or somebody, or people like Joanna.”

“Does Joanna write poetry?”

“I think she just reads it, or I don’t–” Thelma drifted off. She did not quite know what Joanna did, studied a lot, that she knew, but about what, why and all, she just could not figure out. Some have their nose in a book, others in a bottle, she thought, not without a hint of laughter.

Thelma’s drinking career had been long and steady. It had risen to a crescendo when her husband Frank died, and had now tapered off to about a fifth a day. She and Frank had been drinking buddies and had always managed to get each other home. Thelma never felt any real pressure to stop, although the night she sent the Plymouth into a ditch, called the tow truck, arrived home, whispering to the driver to keep quiet because Joanna was asleep, and managed to have not a single memory of the entire event (Frank told her about it)- all of this made her feel that she should cut down, if only a bit.

Thelma thought of herself as an artist of something she called the “buzz maintain.” Whiskey just kept that little hum going that made the world spin at a slightly lower speed.

And she knew exactly where the line was that separated mere fuzziness and generalized good will from complete screaming wildness and blackout. Once in a while she went over that edge just to scare herself.

She wondered now if Joanna had known that at all those school plays, those ghastly talent shows, those award nights when the fat Spanish teacher would begin with “Buenas noches, everybody,” Thelma was bombed. Unfortunately Joanna was sure to walk away with two or three awards, invariably presented at the end of the evening, after a horrendously painful list of Tommy’s and Joey’s and Kimberley’s and Tara’s, all of whose parents were dutifully present and sober, at least according to Thelma’s glazed appraisal of the situation.

“At least I was there,” she said out loud.

“Where?” Ginny muttered, now circling choices on her card.

“That ‘Easy Easy’ in the fourth, I’ve lost so much friggin’ money on that asshole, he should be runnin’ claiming races at the County Fair,” Rafe declared. “Strictly glue factory material.”

“Why do you bet him all the time, then, genius?” Ginny said as she inhaled her cigarette dramatically,

“I don’t know, I keep thinkin’, this time, baby, this time, but then I know that he’ll be standin’ in the gate, lookin’ around sayin’ ‘A race, what race, I just want to stand here and fart.'”

Tune in tomorrow for Part 2.

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